With the way Patrick Kane has dazzled throughout this season, there was the unmistakable feeling that he had the game on his stick the moment Brandon Saad slipped a check and made a sweet dish to the Blackhawks superstar winger. So, it shouldn’t have been the least bit surprising when Kane effectively ended Chicago’s contest against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night by snapping a wrister up over the blocker of Ryan Miller. The goal, coming with 16.1 seconds left in the outing between the fringe Western Conference wild-card contenders, stood as the winner in a 4-3 affair.
There was much about Wednesday’s game that was a microcosm of this season for the Blackhawks, though. Not only did Kane come to the rescue, as he has nearly night in and night out throughout this campaign, but on a night when poor own-zone play and some shoddy defensive coverage almost spoiled Corey Crawford’s return to the Blackhawks crease, Chicago was not just saved by Kane, but hoisted into position for No. 88 to play hero because Alex DeBrincat continued to prove himself a draft-day steal as a second-round pick back in 2016.
You see, as Kane fired home the winner, his 40th goal of the campaign to put him in sole possession of second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, sophomore standout DeBrincat was doing some lamp lighting of his own. Early in the second period, DeBrincat played the part of backyard sniper to Miller’s shooter tutor, walking in before picking a corner high over the goaltender’s glove like it was summer practice. And later in the game, about 10 minutes after the Ducks nabbed their first lead of the outing, there DeBrincat was again, this time in perfect position to knock home a seeing-eye cross-ice feed from Jonathan Toews. The tie game set the stage for Kane’s eventual deciding goal.
That’s been the tale of many a Blackhawks contest this season; Kane and DeBrincat leading the offensive charge and filling the net with aplomb. But what’s especially notable about Wednesday’s contest is what it meant for Chicago’s set of snipers. With Kane netting his aforementioned 40th — the second time in his career he’s reached the mark — and DeBrincat’s two goals giving him 36 on the year, the Blackhawks two main offensive weapons now find themselves on pace for at least 45 goals apiece. That puts them in position to achieve a rare feat.
In NHL history, there are only 55 instances of one squad boasting a pair of 45-goal scorers. And while that may seem like a lot, consider that there has been 422 individual team seasons in the post-lockout era alone and not a single time has a team had two scorers hit the 45-goal plateau. Not the Pittsburgh Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Not the Washington Capitals with Alex Ovechkin and prime-aged Alexander Semin. Not even this season’s Tampa Bay Lightning, with Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are on pace to hit the mark. In fact, to find the last twosome to hit 45 apiece, you need to go back to the 2002-03 campaign, 16 years ago, when Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi scored 48 and 46 goals, respectively.
Following Wednesday’s performance, though, Kane and DeBrincat are in line to join the group, which includes Naslund and Bertuzzi, yes, but also the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri and Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge, who were the first pair of 45-goal men back with the 1968-69 Boston Bruins.
But the reality of the situation in Chicago, with the Blackhawks on the outside looking in as the post-season fast approaches, means that Kane and DeBrincat might also join another, much more limited group of 45-goal teammates.
Among the 55 sets of teammates who have scored 45 goals each in a single season, there are only three duos that have also failed to make the post-season. In 1974-75, the Red Wings pair of Danny Grant and Marcel Dionne managed 50-goal and 47-goal seasons only for Detroit to fall flat in its bid for a post-season berth. Likewise, Dennis Maruk, 50 goals, and Mike Gartner, 48 goals, of the 1980-81 Capitals saw their offensive outbursts go to waste as Washington wound up four points out of the final Patrick Division berth. And most recently, it was Michel Goulet’s 48-goal season and Peter Stastny’s 46-goal campaign in 1987-88 that were all for naught with the Quebec Nordiques.
When it comes to the Blackhawks, it’s easy enough to understand why they might end up in the same company as those Red Wings, Capitals and Nordiques teams. Together, Kane and DeBrincat account for a considerable amount of the team’s goal scoring, more than 35 percent. Add Jonathan Toews and his 29 goals to the equation, and three players have scored nearly 50 percent of the entire team’s goals. And while no team is going to turn away two 45-goal scorers and another potential 40-goal player — it’s worth noting, too, if Toews hit 40 goals, Chicago would be the first team since the 1995-96 Penguins with three 40-goal men — it speaks to a slight depth issue, one that plagues the lower lines.
As much as weaker second and third lines are an issue, though, the primary reason Kane and DeBrincat might see their prolificness go to waste is that the defensive deficiencies run deep in Chicago. While the Blackhawks haven’t exactly been crushed in the possession game, it’s only because the run-and-gun style has given Chicago an element of pushback that few teams boast. That’s to say high shot totals and high shot attempt totals have levelled the playing field. When looking at pure shots against and scoring chance against measures, however, the Blackhawks are among the least effective teams in the league, if not the worst of the bunch. That’s no way to consistently win games, even with two elite goal-scoring talents.
It also hasn’t helped matters that the Blackhawks have issues in the blue paint. Sure, the return of Crawford from injury might assuage those crease concerns slightly, but the veteran keeper has barely played over the past two seasons and few would fault him if some rust shows through. Make no mistake, though, that Crawford is the best option, even if he’s slightly out of form. His replacements during times of rest or injury have been Cam Ward and Collin Delia, a backup pair that has combined for an .899 save percentage this season. No wonder Chicago is in danger of missing out on the dance for a second consecutive year.
That’s not to say Chicago is doomed. There’s still hope yet, and the Blackhawks aren’t out of it, mathematically or otherwise. It’s true, too, that with Kane and DeBrincat firing away and consistently finding twine, there’s a good Chicago will remain in the hunt well down the stretch. All it might take is a few big games at the right time from one or both to make the difference and propel the Blackhawks back to the post-season. But it also might just turn that what makes or breaks the Blackhawks’ season has little to do with their dynamite duo at all. And if it turns out that despite Kane and DeBrincat’s best efforts that Chicago misses the playoffs, they’ll end up being part of an odd footnote on an otherwise incredible feat.